New claims that negative associations between livestock agriculture and the environment are overestimated rest on two narratives. Our latest research investigates the storytelling themes behind these assertions.
Is the image of red meat and dairy having an overhaul? Is the poor environmental reputation of cattle being challenged by new ideas about their regenerative potential in farming landscapes? In a recent paper my colleagues and I published in the Transactions of the British Institute of Geographers, we describe a set of pro-environmental stories beginning to attach themselves to livestock agriculture: a process we have termed a ‘Green Rebranding’.
Anxieties around the environmental footprint of livestock agriculture are widespread. For ruminant animals like sheep and cattle, these concerns relate to the animals’ methane emissions, and the space used for grazing and animal feed production that might be used for other conservation or carbon offsetting goals. Some – particularly from within the new Regenerative Agricultural movement – now claim that these negative associations have misrepresented the actual environmental impacts of livestock agriculture.
Misunderstood methane and soil as climate saviour
This attempted green rebranding exercise rests on two fundamental claims. Firstly, that the warming impacts of methane have been overexaggerated by conventional ways of calculating the warming potential of different greenhouse gases. And secondly, that livestock animals are needed to unlock soil’s soil carbon sequestration potential.
The first claim has been initiated by some research that has come out of the Oxford Martin School, concerning a new global warming potential metric, GWP*. People in the agricultural sector have used the metric to show how standard warming calculations tools – like GWP100 which assumes all greenhouse gases are equal and equivalent – have overestimated the contribution livestock agriculture makes to climate change. Particularly when methane emissions are kept stable, as with Regenerative grass-fed systems, GWP* shows that as methane is relatively short lived in the atmosphere pastoral livestock farming can have small or non-existent climate forcing impacts.
The second central strand to cattle’s green rebranding concerns soil health and carbon sequestration. There is substantial optimism being pinned onto the offsetting potential of soils, and some in the sector claim that grasslands grazed by ruminant animals like cattle are needed to optimise and unlock the land’s sequestration potential.
Telling new stories about traditional food
There are several common themes across these rebranding storylines. They mobilise what we call ‘post-pastoral’, ‘political ecological baselining’ and ‘probiotic biopolitical’ narrative arcs. Each contributes to a sense that the emissions cattle produce, along with their co-evolved role in temperate ecosystems, make their presence in contemporary farmed landscapes seem inevitable, natural and unproblematic.
Cattle act as surrogates for now large ruminant herbivores like bison and auroch that were vital features in pre-human and wild ecologies. The co-evolution of ruminant grazing animals, soil and vegetation hints at the vital role cattle can play in producing healthy carbon-rich soils. Additionally, the emissions produced by livestock animals are seen to be simply fulfilling an allowance created by the large herds of ruminant animals that once roamed freely across the grasslands of Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.
The natural is political
Claims about the ‘natural’ and thus unproblematic presence of livestock animals in the food system can detract from healthy discussions around food system sustainability. Attempts to legitimise the presence of grazing animals in sustainable land use strategies in the ways outlined leaves little room for discussion around the desirability of other land use strategies like plant-based agriculture, or rewilding. And as large companies like MacDonald’s and Burger King are beginning to use the language of ecological ‘regeneration’ in their marketing materials, it is clear that claims about naturalness can be mobilised by a wide variety of actors with radically different imaginations for how the future of food should be arranged.